Petrusia Hontar on behalf of the Elgin Workforce Development Network

Elgin This Month – November 2016

In St. Thomas – Elgin we have welcomed over 1,700 newcomers  between 2001 and 2011. A large portion does not consider English as their first or native language.  There currently are 58 different languages spoken here including Low German, Dutch, Khmer, Portuguese and Spanish.  Have you ever considered what someone who arrived here from another country a couple of months, or even a couple of years ago, might think if they encountered a sales person describing the new must have item as costing “an arm and a leg”?

According to a new study published recently by Forbes Magazine, English will maintain and grow in dominance as the global language of business. The study also indicates that, “English will maintain its dominance and growth, moving from “a marker of the elite” in years past to “a basic skill needed for the entire workforce, in the same way that literacy has been transformed in the last two centuries from an elite privilege into a basic requirement for informed citizenship.” Indeed, the British Council reports that by 2020, two billion people will be studying English.”, also reports Forbes Magazine.

Today there are an estimated 335 million English speakers in the world, and this number continues to grow because of the cultural influence of the Anglosphere (the group of 6 English speaking nations originating from the British Isles). The influence goes beyond popular culture as  it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, the third most common first-language spoken (after Mandarin and Spanish), and the most common second-language in the world.  Many native English speaking travellers assume that it will be easy to communicate because there are always people that want to learn English. It is important to remember that some parts of the English language cannot be learned in a textbook, but are acquired thorough daily interactions.

In communicating with non-native speakers many people will make small but important changes to their speech; speaking slower, using smaller words, and focusing on an-nun-ci-a-ting. While these amendments really help communication, there is one overlooked change that could make all the difference in effective communication: avoid idioms and other figures of speech. Idiom comes from the Latin word “special phrasing and encompasses all words with a figurative meaning separate from the literal meaning”. Common idioms include: “off the top of my head”, “from day one”, “to be blunt”, “a chip on her shoulder”, or “close but no cigar”.  The use of these phrases will change across geographies, social class, and age cohort. There are an estimated 25,000 idioms that exist in the English language, like little ninjas they are undetected by the native speaker. These words and phrases have nestled their way into our daily conversations, with the cultural meaning clear to native English speakers, but potentially mind-boggling to someone who has not been immersed in the language.

In business the confusion can lead to unhappy clients or confused suppliers, for example:  if you tell a customer that you don’t have the product on hand, they will see the obvious, you are not holding it, but still think that you may have some in the stock room. Or if you ask your supplier for a product ASAP (pronounced: Eh-sap), you are speaking some Canadian word alluding to the sap that flows from a maple tree, and not the intended abbreviation of ”As Soon As Possible”. There is great potential for confusion and the biggest challenge is realizing which phrases you use that could be misunderstoodEveryone should do this reflection themselves.

English, in a global context, is an important tool that many Canadians hold. But the power of language should be measured in how the people you are communicating with effectively understand what you really meant. With globalization resulting in customers, suppliers and international employees or partners, miscommunication can be avoided when you acknowledge the aspects of language that may lead to confusion.

The basic use for language is communication.  I stress that the most important action you can take in using it is to ensure that your intended message is what is actually getting through to your audience.

Full Article: